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Palo Alto Fire Department sets goals for community

Palo Alto’s Fire Chief Eric Nickel was sworn in at Palo Alto Elks Lodge on Jan. 17.

Nickel has been has acted as Chief since this November but was formally sworn in as Chief last week, according to Palo Alto Online.

Nickel never knew he wanted to be a firefighter, even after getting a business degree in college, but one summer he decided to do something rather life-saving, instead of crunching numbers at a desk, waiting for the day to end.

“I fought forest fires one summer and thought wow this is what I really want to do, and I realized I was really passionate about helping other people,” Nickel said.

Nickel then started working as a firefighter, and today he is a 25-year-old veteran and the Chief of the Palo Alto Fire Department. Upon taking office on Jan. 17, Nickel has set goals for himself and the Fire Department, which he hopes to fulfill from community engagement and improving technology.

However, due to the restraints of the economy, Nickel must work his goals and hopes around the budget that the city puts in place for him, as he describes any good fire chief knows how to balance a budget, while maintaining engagement with the community and an efficient staff.

“Having only been here for about two months [Nickel chuckles], I’m working with my staff, and again coming from the outside I’m new to the community,” Nickel said. “But some of the initial goals for our community are to really enhance our services to the community around what is the most common type of call which are Emergency Medical Calls and at the same time, bringing in the organization to the future of fire services. We deal with really tight budgets right now and there is very little opportunity for adding additional staff so trying to find new, really innovative and creative ways to use technology and the existing staff to deliver better levels of service for less money is really my big goal.”

In the past decade, medical calls rose from 2,742 in 2000 to 4,070, according to TriData and ICMA Center for Public Safety Excellence. Nickel explains that medical calls being 60% of the Fire Department’s calls is a result of a decrease in firefighting calls.

“Over the years for a variety of reasons both fires have decreased, whether it’s fire prevention codes that requires items like sprinklers in buildings, the way we build buildings, smoke detectors, those types of things have decreased the numbers of fires,” Nickel said. “Now while that is a really good thing because my goal would be to have zero fires ever, there is always going to be a fire. At the same time though, what is happened is our role of pre-hospital or medical providers has increased substantially.”

On any given day, Nickel has 29-31 personnel out on the field for a city that employs 120,000, so while he would like to have extra personnel on the field, he recognizes that is not within the cities budget so instead, he tries to implement a combination of technology and a good relationship with the community.

“We maintain solid relationships with not only or public safety partners, but also with the community,” Nickel said. “My focus, and a reason why I think I was hired was because I wanted to bring a community focus to the fire department. We have to engage the community at all different levels and many different members of the community.”

Nickel recognizes that being a firefighter or a paramedic always has some sort of emotional impact that can change an individual greatly.

“We are humans at the core. We put on our gear and people sometimes put us up on pedestals or think that we are heros but we’re people just like everybody else,” Nickel said. “There is an emotional facet to this line of work, but you talk to any firefighter or paramedic out there who has been doing this line of work for a period of time and we’ve all had those very difficult calls. And for me personally, I have high school and teenage kids, the calls involving kids have always affected me the most.”

Palo Alto now looks forward to the coming years with Nickel as Chief, as well as to the progressive involvement of the Fire Department with the community.

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